Commentary

Protection in Practice: The Role of Peacekeepers in Southern Sudan

in Program

By Nina McMurry – Over the next 14 months, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA)
that ended Africa’s longest civil war – between the north and south of
Sudan – will face the two biggest tests to its survival since its
signing in January 2005: national elections in April 2010 and a
referendum for Southern Sudan’s secession in 2011. Absent substantial
improvements to the country’s political dynamics and security
situation, it is exceedingly likely that tensions will continue to
increase as these milestones approach.

The ability of the United
Nations peacekeeping mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to fulfill its mandate is
critical to ensuring the CPA’s success. UNMIS is charged with a variety
of duties aimed at consolidating peace under the CPA, including
electoral assistance, ceasefire monitoring and verification,
humanitarian and development assistance, governance capacity-building,
and “[protecting] civilians under imminent threat of physical violence.”

In
recent months, the Security Council and the international community
have focused on this last enumerated task of UNMIS’ mandate,
recognizing violence targeting civilians in Southern Sudan as a major
emerging threat to the CPA. In response – and following significant
international criticism of its alleged failure to protect civilians
during fighting in the border town of Abyei in May 2008 – UNMIS has
made protection of civilians a priority mission task. But are UNMIS’
actions in this area sufficient to effectively protect civilians and
address the resulting threat to the CPA?

Attacks between rival
tribes in Jonglei and Upper Nile States since the beginning of the year
are, according to a recent statement by Medecins Sans Frontieres, much
more severe than the traditional annual “cattle rustling,” with women
and children (usually spared in the fighting) becoming deliberate
targets and more killed than wounded. Attacks by the Ugandan Lord’s
Resistance Army (LRA) further south since the beginning of 2009 have
caused additional civilian deaths and disrupted thousands of lives.
Recent UN reports indicate that more than 2,000 people (primarily
civilians) have died in Southern Sudan since January. And although
recent displacement figures for Darfur are unknown, displacement in
Southern Sudan – at least 250,000 this year – is at least on par with
if not exceeding displacement in Darfur.

Since May 2008, both
the UN Secretary-General and Human Rights Watch have documented
increased protection-related activities by UNMIS leading up to and
following violent incidents in Southern Sudan. To pre-empt violence,
UNMIS has increased joint patrols by UNMIS troops, the Government of
Southern Sudan’s (GoSS’s) army (the SPLA), and police service (SSPS),
and conflict mitigation and reconciliation initiatives in potentially
volatile areas. UNMIS has also ramped up efforts to de-escalate
tensions and provide assistance to affected populations once violence
has subsided. In several instances, UNMIS’ pre-emptive actions have
arguably helped prevent violence. Rapid humanitarian response and
de-escalation activities following violent incidents are valuable for
accountability purposes, saving (some) lives, and possibly preventing
future violence in areas where attacks have occurred.

Yet
given increasing instability and targeted attacks on civilians in
Southern Sudan, reason demands questioning the efficacy of a civilian
protection strategy that relies solely on pre-emptive and post-incident
action. As UNMIS has increasingly prioritized the protection of
civilians, indications that it is willing or able to intervene to
protect civilians during fighting—which the Security Council and
international community justifiably assume to be an important component
of “civilian protection”—are conspicuously absent. For example,
internal contingency plans failed to seriously consider using coercive
force to protect civilians preceding a July 2009 court decision on
Abyei’s regional boundaries that was expected to provoke violence
(although ultimately did not). If UNMIS is perceived by belligerents as
unwilling or unable to intervene to protect civilians during fighting,
its ability to deter violence through patrols or preemptive deployments
is minimal at best. And action after the fact can only do so much. Such
coercive force could potentially jeopardize government consent, and the
decision to use it must be weighed carefully. Nevertheless, it should
be considered in planning even if it is not deployed in a particular
moment.

Although protecting civilians within their borders is
generally considered the responsibility of states, the SPLA and SSPS
are not prepared to do it effectively. In fact, Human Rights Watch
reported in June that the SPLA has standing orders from GoSS not to
intervene in violence involving armed militia groups, largely for fear
that they will be overwhelmed.

The Security Council’s
increased emphasis on UNMIS’ mandate to protect civilians – most
recently via the passage of Resolution 1870 in April – indicates a
realization that UNMIS’ role in filling this “protection gap” is
crucial over the next several months. Indeed, an agreement reached
October 20th between North and South Sudan over the 2011 referendum
requires 2/3 voter turn-out in the South – a requirement that will be
exceedingly difficult to meet if civilians do not feel secure. But
there remains a need for clarity, both about the efficacy of UNMIS’
current civilian protection strategy and the role UNMIS should play
relative to GoSS in its implementation.

With no common
conception of what the physical protection of civilians by peacekeepers
entails, the international community, local actors, and the Security
Council may assume UNMIS is doing or striving to do something it is
not. Given the stakes in Sudan, the relevant stakeholders need a shared
understanding of what “civilian protection” by the mission means in
practice, and whether UNMIS’ civilian protection strategy makes sense
given the Mission’s capacity, posture, and larger purpose.

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